On 19 February 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. It was the first direct attack on Australian soil. At least 243 civilians and service personnel were killed, and it was the first of over 60 bombing raids on the frontier town between February 1942 and November 1943. Darwin’s proximity to Southeast Asia made it a strategically important location for the war in the Pacific and at its peak in 1943, there were over 110,000 servicemen and women based in the town and surrounding areas.
The strategic value of Darwin was recognised as early as 1892 when military planners perceived a threat from Japan. In 1911 Field Marshall Kitchener had recommended that two batteries of 6-inch guns be situated at the east and west points of the harbour entrance although this was not acted upon. In 1919 as part of Admiral Jellicoe’s plan for the defence of the Pacific a recommendation was made to establish a Far Eastern Fleet in Singapore with a secondary bases in Australia including Darwin. However, with the development of the ‘Singapore Strategy’ in 1923, Darwin’s role as a major naval base was removed and instead it was to be a naval refuelling facility protected by four 6-inch guns.
In 1932, Australian Army troops arrived to construct the fortifications and garrison accommodation and by 1936, four 6-inch guns, two each at East point and Emery Point, magazines, command posts and searchlight stations had been installed. In 1944 the 6-inch guns were replaced by 9.2-inch guns, but apart from firing test rounds in March 1945, not a shot was fired in anger and after the war, the guns were sold as scrap to the Fujita Salvage Company.
The battery emplacements at East Point are now the home to the Darwin Military Museum and co-located Defence of Darwin Experience. Originally established in 1965 by the Royal Australian Artillery Association (NT) Inc to showcase Darwin’s history during WWII, the museum has expanded to include exhibits from all Australia’s conflicts from the Boer War to the present day.
The exhibition spaces have spread beyond the original museum which was situated in the command post bunker and are a mixture of indoor, covered outdoor and open air displays. Being in the tropics, this is presenting obvious preservation issues for some of the exhibits, particularly some of the paper and textile items that are not housed in sealed climate controlled environments.
Naturally, emphasis is given to the Northern Territory’s role in Australia’s military history, past and present and there are some very interesting exhibits. of particular interest to me were the displays related to the little known 2/1st North Australia Observation Unit (NAOU), nicknamed the “Nackeroos” or “Curtin’s Cowboys” which had been raised by an anthropologist, Major William Stanner. The unit was tasked with patrolling northern Australia looking for signs of enemy activity, patrolling in small groups on horseback and maintaining coastwatching outposts. As the threat of Japanese invasion passed, the unit was reduced in strength and disbanded in 1945. The concept was resurrected in 1981 with the formation of the North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), which is based in Darwin and one of three Regional Force Surveillance Units employed in surveillance and reconnaissance of remote Northern Australia.
However, as a collector and researcher there are also some disappointments. My interests are quite focused, and my knowledge reflects those limitations but some of the mistakes in the exhibits are glaringly obvious to even somebody with a more general interest in Australian militaria. These include presenting contemporary uniforms and insignia in displays that are described as being from earlier conflicts and including reproduction items as originals without identifying them as copies. Whilst these omissions may escape the notice of the general viewing public, they do undermine the integrity of the museum and the accuracy of its representation, which is unfortunate if its role is to preserve history and educate.
One of the newer areas of the museum, which is done very well, is the co-located Defence of Darwin Experience. This is presented as a stand-alone attraction in a lot of the tourist orientated promotional material but is really just a new section of the museum which was added in 2012 and included in the one admission fee. This section tells the story of Darwin’s role in World War II through a combination of objects, firsthand accounts and multimedia presentations. Naturally there is an emphasis on the bombing of Darwin and unlike in some of other sections of the museum, the provenance of the artifacts is well documented presenting an engaging insight to the war in the top end by connecting the objects to the participants and their experiences.
Overall, I found the Darwin Military Museum to be a mixed bag, sometimes disappointing due to the inclusion of fakes or reproductions that were not identified as such, obvious curatorial errors and the effects that poor display conditions are having on some of the objects. But the exhibits also include some very engaging personal stories and unusual artifacts that are not often found in the public domain. I spent half a day examining the exhibits, jumping back and forth between the various exhibition areas. Visiting the museum resulted in a much better understanding Darwin’s history during the war and when complimented by the ABC’s Bombing of Darwin Podtour, I was able to develop a much more informed exploration of the military related sites in the area.
The Darwin Military Museum
LOT 5434 Alec Fong Lim Dr
East Point, Darwin, NT 0820
Phone: +61 (0)8 8981 970
Open: Every day 10:00 – 15:30
Children aged 5 – 15: Au$10
Children under 5: Free
Seniors (65+): Au$10 for Northern Territory residents, interstate and international visitors, Au$15
Family pass(2 ADULTS, 3 CHILDREN U16): Au$45.00
University/TAFE students: Au$10.00
Disability carers: Au$12.00
Serving Military Personnel: Au$15
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